The Biella region is known around the world as a land of wool, but perhaps not everyone knows that it is also a land of water. It is part of the Alpine belt dominated by Monte Rosa and divided by high valleys where water flows in streams and torrents that gush down in leaps to the foot of the valley. The water comes from the alpine rainfall that flows into the irrigation channels and rice fields, turning watermills and powering machinery. For a long time, before the advent of electricity, this water also provided power for local industry.
The water we are talking about is not just any water, because that of the Biella area, which originates 1,500 meters underground, has special natural properties. Flowing across chalk and limestone-free ground makes the water soft and low in mineral salts. This meant it could be used in its natural state right from the source, without the need to neutralize it. Less soap was, therefore, needed for washing and finishing fabrics, making it ideal for washing and treating sheep fleece and turning the wool into fine yarn. Its quality and purity also made it perfect for producing the historic Menabrea beer. In this area, life and industry – especially the textile industry – owe everything to this widespread and abundant natural water network.
For this reason, water is the common thread that runs through the stories of this land and its industrial heroes: textiles, first and foremost, and beer.
The first spinning mills were introduced as far back as the 18th century. They were the prelude to a textile industry that would flourish for the next 200 years. The first wool mills were built along the waterways, concentrated in the Val Sessera, along the Sessera river, the Sesia river, or the Cervo and Elvo streams. These waterways made Biella the capital of wool, a textile crossroads for the raw material transported from Mongolia to China, New Zealand, Australia, Peru, Japan, the United States and all over Europe.
Since 2019, Biella is also a Unesco Creative City due to the hard work of industries and local government.
Ermenegildo Zegna and the Casa Zegna archives in Trivero Valdilana
Following the theme of water takes you on a visit to Casa Zegna and the discovery of stories like that of Ermenegildo Zegna, an enlightened individual (and industrialist) whose work and life revolved around water. Zegna was born in Trivero, where water is a scarce and precious resource that flows quickly, making it difficult and laborious to access and collect. And yet, the Count, the founding father of the company that was to become a world leader in natural yarns, had no doubts. In 1910, he opened his wool mill right here in Trivero, far from the water but close to his people. He chose to rely on electricity to drive his machinery, regarding water as a precious resource to be protected and managed in order to revive the area, develop his community and make his fabrics unique. This pure spring water was the means which marked his fabrics as superior – fabrics of the highest quality, behind which there has always been an idea as timeless and fluid as water: “being innovative, continually staying ahead of the market by proposing new quality and creativity”.
And when the vocation of a lifetime is to care for society and the environment, all one’s work goes in that direction. This is why, in 1938, Zegna embarked on the major project of building the Panoramica Zegna, a 26-kilometer-long road that winds through hundreds of thousands of cultivated conifers and rhododendrons, from the Upper Sessera Valley to the Cervo Valley, high above the Po Valley. Today, the Zegna Oasis extends along this route, inaugurated by Ermenegildo’s heirs in 1993 as an expression of their love for the Biella valleys, with their woods, trails and beautiful flowers – a paradise for slow tourism to be explored and enjoyed in all seasons.
FILA and Fondazione FILA Museum
There are also other interesting stories, like that of FILA. A cult brand renowned the world over, FILA began as a wool factory in Coggiola, near Biella, on the banks of the river Sessera. The exhibition space of the FILA Museum Foundation documents the evolution of the brand, from its the origins in quality yarns to sportswear and lifestyle. Its association with water, used in the textile manufacturing processes, has inspired FILA for over a century. Much is owed to Pierluigi Rolando, FILA’s stylist. In 1973, he introduced the unmistakable red and blue F to the tennis courts, along with the first outfits with colored inserts, at a time when all-white still reigned. In 1976, he designed the Aqua Time collection, dedicated to competitive swimming sports. In 1981, FILA swimwear was revamped with geometric prints that, season after season, turned into fluid waves, creating the perfect link between the swimming pool and the world of fashion. One of Rolando’s inspirations was Lucio Fontana: the slashes in his canvases became motifs that flowed over the swimsuits like the brushstrokes of his paintings. The FILA name is, therefore, inextricably linked to water, from Olympic pools to oceans, from steep 8,000-meter peaks to ski slopes, from tennis courts around the world to athletics tracks. A top-quality brand whose hallmark is renewal and innovation, capable of expanding its boundaries while maintaining a strong relationship with nature, the body and its origins.
MeBo - Casa Menabrea Beer Museum and Casa Botalla Cheese Museum
The purest and lightest water from the Biella Alps once again figures predominantly in the story of Menabrea beer. It was near the water, along the Biella irrigation channel, that the historic brewery, purchased by Giuseppe Menabrea in 1872, was founded in 1846. The history of the oldest working brewery in Italy can be explored by visiting the Casa Menabrea Museum in Biella, where visitors can view bottles and glasses, documents and photographs or the ancient tools and machinery that demonstrate the production processes. The historical beers can also be tasted, accompanied by a meal, at the Birreria Menabrea restaurant, next door to the ancient brewery.
Menabrea beer is made from a blend of top-quality ingredients, the most important of which is the purest water from Biella’s springs – a precious element that is carefully managed through continuous technological innovation – to which malt, hops and yeast are added. Selected ingredients are used in a variety of recipes that decreed Menabrea’s success right from the start. Before the turn of the century, its fame had spread across the borders into more than forty countries.
Casa Botalla is also inside MeBo. This museum is dedicated to another long-standing company, Botalla Formaggi, which shares a tie with the local area and a twenty-year partnership with nearby Birra Menabrea, which recently expanded into new exhibition spaces. The Cheese Museum traces the history of cheese-making in Biella, which is linked to age-old techniques handed down through generations of expert cheesemakers, who demonstrated their skill on every cheese produced. It tells the story of the relationship between the company and the farmers who oversee the mountain environment through their management of the pasture. But, above all, it tells the story of the relationship between spring water and the green pastures of the Biella Alps, where the favorable climate and large expanses of grassland create the ideal environment for the native cattle breed called Pezzata Rossa di Oropa. This combination of factors is essential for the quality of the genuine milk, butter and cheese.
The historical archives of the Sella Group and Fondazione Sella
The Lanificio Maurizio Sella is located on the left bank of the Cervo river. Activities related to water have been documented here since the Middle Ages: from mills, ironworks, hemp weights to paper mills and, since the beginning of the eighteenth century, a silk spinning mill with an adjoining wool factory. In 1835, Maurizio Sella, owner of a wool business in the Mosso Valley, moved here in search of “white” gold, which would allow him to obtain more power to drive his machines that were increasingly in need of hydraulic energy. Consequently, he purchased the silk spinning mill from the Santuario d’Oropa, initially in partnership with the wool cloth manufacturer, Agostino Crolle, before becoming the sole owner in 1838. In the years leading up to 1849, Maurizio Sella also purchased all the buildings in the industrial complex in order to install new textile machinery. In 1867, his sons, Giuseppe Venanzio and Quintino Sella, built a large multistory building in the “Manchester” manufacturing style (to be used for weaving) upstream of the existing buildings. Textile production continued until the 1960s. In 1988, the area of the former Maurizio Sella wool mill was declared of “particularly important interest” by the Ministry of Cultural and Environmental Heritage.
The centuries-old business of the Sella family covered various sectors from textiles to agriculture, as well as the establishment of the Gaudenzio Sella bank in 1886. The old family wool mill was also among the founding partners of the bank. In recent years, the strong tie with its origins and the Biella area has led the Sella Group to redevelop the fascinating old wool mill buildings which now house the offices of its operating companies and spaces dedicated to start-ups and financial technology. The key feature of the Sella Group is its ongoing production over the centuries, now employing around 700 people. It has also undertaken a program to preserve and restore the original water channels used for energy production. All this is being done with a particular focus on sustainability. In fact, a project for a hydroelectric plant in Biella is under way. It will exploit the hydroelectric potential in the area, reducing the risk of landslides and floods and increasing the use of renewable energy.
The company’s long history, based on innovation and tradition, can be explored in the Sella Group Historical Archive, established in 2013 by the president, Maurizio Sella, in which documents and assets, related to the Bank from 1886 to the present day, are carefully preserved. With almost 450 linear meters of documentation and around 1,300 objects, the Historical Archive also has an exhibition room that can be visited by appointment, a photographic archive and a library containing about 4,000 volumes.
The Fondazione Sella, on the other hand, was established in 1980 to preserve and promote a vast number of documents and iconographic material of historical and artistic interest, making it accessible to researchers and enthusiasts alike and sharing its contents through cultural initiatives linked to the central themes of its archives: the history of the textile industry and photography.
Fondazione Pistoletto and Loro Piana
Biella is home to even more textile dynasties that hold international accolades. Another stage of this story must include a visit to the Terme Culturali at the Cittadellarte – Fondazione Pistoletto in Biella, designed to revive “the dormant muscle of sensitivity” through the combination of spa treatments, the properties of water and art. Loro Piana, a legendary brand renowned for its cashmere, which has become a luxury must-have item all over the world, is also well worth visiting. It was founded in 1924 by Pietro Loro Piana, whose family was originally from Trivero, and had been trading in quality wool since the nineteenth century. It was his grandson Franco, however, who made took the plunge and expanded production into Valsesia.